Trigger warning for child abuse and rape.
Sympathy for fictional characters is often a matter of perspective; we tend to sympathize with characters whose past and point of view we know the most about. Because we understand them, we can forgive. How else could the Dexter series have been so popular? But in Deborah Stone’s unsettling family novel, What’s Left Unsaid, all the sympathy I felt for one character was weighed against the emotional damage she inflicted on all the other characters. Is it possible for someone to be so awful that it doesn’t matter how much they went through? Is there an amount of trauma that means someone gets a free pass to be horrible for the rest of their lives? These are callous questions, but something about the central figure in this book meant that I had to ask.
What’s Left Unsaid is narrated by three family members. Joe, the family patriarch and former broadcasting superstar, chimes in from the afterlife. He passed away 15 years before the book opens. Sasha, his daughter, is a frazzled mother trying to reconnect with her teenaged and newly moody son, Zac. Annie, Sasha’s mother and Joe’s wife, is fading into dementia and physical frailty. Sasha and Annie have reached a kind of detente since their most contentious years, but when Annie slips a family secret loose to her grandson, Zac, he starts stirring things up to find out what his parents and grandmother have been hiding from him.
Through Sasha’s point of view, we learn about a hot-and-cold childhood. Her father delights in her. Her mother insults her constantly and tries to push her aside at every opportunity. Because Sasha grew up in the 1960s and 70s, the adults in her life were more likely to downplay Annie’s corrosive effect on her daughter. Through Annie’s wandering memories, we slowly learn why she is so lacking in empathy and mothering skills: an abusive foster mother who “cared” for Annie after she’d been evacuated to the countryside for the duration of World War II, parents who didn’t know how to help a child with post-traumatic stress disorder, plus one more outrage before she became a mother.
It isn’t hard to see why Sasha is so anxious. Annie was a nightmare of a parent. Sasha doesn’t know what made Annie the way she is. But I have to wonder, even if Sasha did know, does that make up for the terrible things Annie has said and done to her? Now that Annie is losing her memories, reconciliation is impossible. And without the hope that Sasha and Annie might make peace, it’s left to us readers to answer that question on Sasha’s behalf. I’ll admit that I’m very torn. Annie had a horrible life before she married Joe. She suffered more than anyone should ever have to. But then, being abused as a child and a young adult can’t mean that Annie has carte blanche to behave the way she does for the rest of her life. I don’t have much to say about Joe’s story line. It didn’t add much to the novel for me other than a sense of futility as Joe fails his family repeatedly and briefly hogs the spotlight near the end of the book.
What’s Left Unsaid is a hard read. The occasionally clumsy, unnatural dialogue doesn’t help. I’m curious about what other readers will think about this book. Given that I’m a judgmental reader (in the sense that I so often read books like a judge, apportioning blame and guilt left and right), I suspect that my reaction to this book may be other than the author intended. That said, I will give What’s Left Unsaid credit for asking a question I had never considered before. I’m fascinated by the idea that sympathy and forgiveness might have limits and where those limits are. Readers who are similarly fascinated may find food for thought here. Readers looking for a psychological portrait of a family should probably look elsewhere unless they enjoy really troubled mother-daughter stories.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 28 October 2018.